Fast, Blind and Dense

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Exploring the art of innovation in emerging markets.

China’s Secret Language

Using 大气 (Da Qi) to understand the heart of Chinese art, architecture, design and politics.

In the back seat of a van from Ningbo to Shanghai one of the more striking structures I have seen materialized from the hazy pollution that hung over the Jiaozhou Bay. I pressed my forehead to the warm window of the van watching the structures change shape as we sped nearer. We finally drove past the structures revealing the structure to be a building in the shape of a massive eagle spreading its stark white wings over the hazy, soupy Bay. I felt small.

The restaurant at the middle of the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge that introduced me to Da Qi

I was reminded of standing under the CCTV building in Beijing, a space invader crash landed and looming over me. As the haze again swallowed the buildings I turned to Haul, my friend and fellow designer at IDEO and casually remarked, “Say what you want about Chinese architecture, but it has a strong point of view.” “You mean that the restaurant we just passed has Da Qi” he replied. “Da Qi?”, “What’s that?” I asked. “It’s what you just felt when you saw the building, it’s what you were when you paid for lunch, it is China’s obsession with growth”.

Passing under the imposing CCTV building in Beijing

 “Da Qi (大气) is an ideal” Haul began. It is the ideal of masculinity and Confucianism. What does a person aspire to be? To be Da Qi is to have a big heart, to look past the little things and see the big picture. “Paying for dinner is a gesture of Da Qi, giving expensive gifts is a gesture of Da Qi”. A small village of houses with smashed roofs whizzes past us on the freeway. “Da Qi can become waste and abundance, being able to afford to throw something away or consume without thought. “Da Qi means leaving your village and coming back rich. Or moving your family to the city. I want to be successful and Da Qi is how you show you’ve made it”.

Tall Ceilings, big views and dark paneling create an aura of authority in Chinese architecture. “In my own home I added a façade to my front door to give it the illusion that it goes to the ceiling. It is Da Qi”. “In Beijing all the buildings are low and massive, taking up entire city blocks. It is impossible to see where they end”. Tienanmen Square is an example of vastness created by Da Qi principles, it is humbling and awe-inspiring. Da Qi can be measured by the amount of unused space.

The vast open space of Tienanmen Square

Entering the city limits of Shanghai, we pass a 15m tall egg made of giant fiberglass flowers set in a clearing off the freeway, encircled by the curving off-ramp.  Haul continued.

“Da Qi requires balance as well.” Massiveness without space around it is no longer massive. The Temple of Heaven is an 80m pagoda pointed at the sky and surrounded by acres of carefully manicured gardens with short trees.

The Temple of Heaven set on top of a platform. Massiveness requires space to set it off

The famous ink paintings of mountain landscapes were the height of Chinese ancient art and used large sections of blankness, enveloping the scene with Da Qi. The result is beautiful. It is a study in balance and proportion, positive and negative, Yin and Yang. Space creates authority because you can afford it.

Early Spring, painted in 1072 by Guo Xi is a masterpiece of the Northern Song movement and shows how balance and white space create Da Qi.

Feng Shui owes many of its principles to Da Qi. You place a house with the mountains behind creating massiveness when a visitor walks up. You place the river and garden in front so from the house you have a sweeping view. Opening the gates to the Forbidden City, the entire city is laid before your feet framed perfectly by massive double doors. It is like opening doors into another universe, one that is impossibly grand, impossibly Da Qi.”

The Forbidden City is a study in how the Da Qi of the Meridien Gate hits you in mere moments, even in the 1900’s

We finally stop in front of Haul’s apartment. Our driver, Joe, presses a button and the sliding door opens itself and slides slowly back on its track. I thanked Haul and said goodbye.

The next day I spoke to others in the office about Da Qi and began collecting opinions and ideas.

From blinged-out cell phones to building skyscrapers in record time to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, Da Qi is the heart of modern China, pumping displays of wealth and power to the far corners of the world.

The Beijing Olympic opening ceremony was the ultimate Da Qi coming out party for China to the world

In China’s remote villages Da Qi is used to communicate wealth and power in convenience stores - here is the owner of a small store who told us that she piles boxes of his goods up like a mountain to impress customers.

The owner of this store piles up boxes of goods to create a mountain of products that impress the shopper as walk through the front door

Shanzhai manufacturers of cheap products want their goods to be seen as expensive so they employ every Da Qi trick in the book – except that of quality. They make their products look expensive from a distance using gold painted plastic, rhinestones and all black everywhere. It’s this thinking that leads to entire malls of electronics shouting at the top of their lungs “look at me”, websites that have banners that blink different colors so fast it causes seizures and skylines of 100 Las Vegases.

Mobile phones all screaming for attention with false Da Qi

This has created a unique aesthetic in China, one that is loud and bold. One of my favorite artists, Cai Guo Qiang uses gunpowder to blast paintings onto massive canvases, creates epic dioramas of tigers and cars crashing, even creating a black rainbow over the Thames with a mortar cannon. It doesn’t get more Da Qi than that.

The great contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang’s artwork blends scale, power and awe to impress Da Qi on the viewer

But attitudes to Da Qi are shifting. Wealth is becoming more common so people are turning to generosity and social responsibility to show Da Qi. The themes of the World Expo in Shanghai, Green, Sustainability and embracing a multicultural China reflect the changing attitudes to Da Qi even within the government.

As designers how can we use Da Qi to be relevant in the world’s biggest consumer market?

A return to the roots of Da Qi is to return to real quality, a return to its Confucian roots.

Da Qi design must be generous to people immediately. It must project confidence. It must breathe. It must respect our planet. And it must assume the user is smart and wise.

This is the first installment on Da Qi, stay tuned as I dig deeper.

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